Friday, February 25, 2011

Film Friday: Waiting for Superman (2010)

Directed by Davis Guggenheim (Inconvenient Truth), Waiting for Superman is a documentary about the failure of education in America. I’m a fan of documentaries, but this is not a good documentary. It's neither entertaining, nor does it provide useful information, and the only emotion it elicited was a strong desire to strangle the director. If you’re a conservative, forget this turkey.

Documentaries are best judged on two separate standards: (1) is it entertaining, and (2) does it provide valuable information. By “value,” I mean is it time well spent, not is the information consequential. Thus, for example, I’ve seen documentaries on fishing in New York City, suicides on Golden Gate Bridge, and humor in East Germany, each of which was well worth the time, despite the obscure subject matter. Waiting fails both tests.

1. Waiting Is Not An Entertaining Film
Waiting suffers from major defects that make it painful to watch. For one thing, it’s deathly dull. Guggenheim’s pacing is awful. His scenes are too long, and he wastes too much time on scenes which offer nothing, like watching a child brush his teeth. Better documentaries fill these moments with narrative, Guggenheim doesn’t. But that’s not to say Guggenheim doesn’t include narrative, to the contrary, he includes too much. Indeed, he only lets his subjects speak in soundbites, and he fills in the blanks himself. This shows a lack of trust in his subjects. What’s worse, when he narrates, he tries to sound concerned by injecting two second pauses at every. . . single. . . comma. . . or. . . period. This is beyond annoying.

Moreover, he waits almost twenty minutes before introducing the first substantive interview, and he spreads his interview soundbites throughout the film. Because of this, you wait forever to get anything interesting out the film, and it never comes together except in the broadest of strokes. Combined with Guggenheim’s heavy-handed false sentimentalism, Waiting leaves you feeling manipulated. It feels dishonest.
2. Waiting Does Not Provide Valuable Information
A good documentary also must provide valuable information. Waiting fails this test miserably. Waiting presents only small amounts of information, yet it reaches broad conclusions based on these snippets. There are 2,000 failing schools. But what percentage is that? We don’t know, yet Waiting presents this as sufficient to condemn the whole system. Why are these schools failing? We don’t know, yet Waiting blames bad teachers. What percentage of teachers are incompetent? Why are they bad? How do other countries or private schools fix this? We don’t know. And so on. In each instance, Guggenheim tosses out an isolated number, paints a broad brush criticism, shows a school where his criticism does not apply, and then concludes with “see, it can be done.” Yet he never addresses the fundamental questions of “why?” and “how?”

Guggenheim also skips the really significant questions. For example, he tells us only one in some unidentified number of public schools does an excellent job (he never defines what this means). By comparison, 20% of charter schools fall into his mystery excellent category. Thus, he concludes, charter schools are the answer. But he never tells us why charter schools are better, nor does he explain why the 20% do better than the 80%. That’s the real question, i.e. what’s working? He also points out that even our top students do poorly against the rest of the world, but he never asks why, and he criticizes current teaching methods, but never identifies them or gives us alternatives.

Also, his liberalism blinds him. Most of the problems he finds are the direct result of liberal policies, but he never connects the dots, and thus, he suggests more of the same. For example, he observes that American kids vastly overstate their abilities, but he never connects this with the relentless liberal push for teaching “self esteem,” and then he whines that teachers don’t make kids feel good about themselves. He also tells us the connection between money and education quality has been disproven, but then he presents a group of reformers who want to spend more money on teachers. Even worse, he annoyingly acts like he’s the first person to discover common sense. Did you know when teachers demand more from kids, the kids step up to the challenge? Or that money does not equate to success? Of course you didn’t, NO ONE KNEW THIS until now. . . forget that conservatives were saying these things for decades.

Further, because he refuses to connect liberal policies and the failure of education, he seeks out villains to explain what went wrong, but his villains are strawmen. The first villain is the passive voice villain, i.e. THEY. THEY set up a system that prevents good teachers from reaching kids. THEY set up a system that makes it impossible to fire bad teachers. THEY set up a system that lowers kids’ motivation and expectations. Who are THEY? THEY are the people who set up the system in the 1950s. This is a cop-out. The problem is the people who prevent reform. Blaming the long dead creators of the system or the system itself is a red herring, and shows a lack of seriousness.

The second villain is teachers unions. This is what got Waiting a lot of attention because it’s stunning to see a liberal attack a union. But his criticisms are shallow, and again he’s only discovering common sense. Unions stand in the way of reform. Gee, really? They make it impossible to fire bad teachers. You don’t say? And. . . well, that’s it. At no point does he outline the real problems with unions, nor does he discuss the things they’ve done to stand in the way of reform. He doesn’t even use their most damning quotes against them: “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I'll start representing the interests of school children.” (Albert Shanker, President, United Federation of Teachers). Instead, the unions are presented as inadvertently hurting schools because their desire to protect teachers is something a few bad teachers exploit. But ask yourself, can a handful of bad teachers really harm 100% of the students. It’s pretty obvious there is a bigger problem here than his couple of bad apples theory.

Also, in defense of the unions and the public schools (**shudder**), he actually misleads the audience regarding the reason charter schools may do better than public schools. Public school defenders contend that charter schools get to pick their students, and thus have an advantage. Guggenheim attacks this claim repeatedly by pointing out how the selection process for some charter schools is random. But he fails to mention that it’s only random among the parents who cared enough to seek out the best schools for their kids. He then doubles down on this by selecting only black and Hispanic children (with one exception) whose parents are conscientious and deeply value education, and then presenting these as a random sample of poor families. When he shows these kids succeeding, he then savages the strawmen villain, “THOSE who said these children could not be taught.”

But this is a farce. If you want to see a truly representative example of the real problems faced by schools in poor minority neighborhoods, I highly recommend the documentary Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card. Hard Times takes a look at an historic black high school in Baltimore, and what it finds is absolutely horrific: 50% of the class not returning for the sophomore year, only 12 of 500 kids making it to their senior year, nearly 100% illiteracy, parents who don’t care and try to hide from the principal, parent-teacher conferences with no parents, etc. This is a much better documentary that shows what the real problems are, not the sanitized version in Waiting. If Waiting wants to provide any value in this discussion, it needs to get its hands dirty.

Finally, there’s an unspoken liberal boogeyman present throughout the film. Although Guggenheim never says the word “racism,” he constantly implies that racists are the problem. Take a look at his main point that kids are failing because “THOSE who said these kids couldn’t learn” have decided to abandon them. He explicitly identifies these kids as minority kids in inner city neighborhoods -- he completely ignores poor white kids; in fact, the only white kid he mentions lives in Redwood City, California in a multimillion dollar home. The implication is obvious; racists have undermined minority education. This is reinforced in several ways, e.g. all of the bad teachers Guggenheim shows are white, and in each case they are ignoring or abusing minority kids, and each of the reformers he follows is a minority. This is no accident.

Liberals have created a real mess in education, an area they have controlled exclusively for 50 years. It is much more comforting for liberals to think the reason education is such a disaster is a handful of bad teachers who misuse union rules and white racists than it is to admit their policies destroyed generations of black kids.
Conclusion
This is why Waiting fails. It’s a dull and annoying film that is ultimately designed to comfort liberals and excuse their failures; it’s not a film designed to expose or enlighten. In fact, if you pay attention early on, you get a clue to its true purpose when Guggenheim confesses his discomfort at abandoning his principles and sending his own kids to private school. This film is his attempt to justify that decision to himself, without admitting that his liberalism is wrong.

Check out the new film site -- CommentaramaFilms!

34 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

FYI, Let me clarify one point -- I do favor charter schools and I think the public schools are a mess, but I don't think Waiting for Superman is an honest assessment, nor is it meant to be.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: Thank you for saving me some time. Rather than go to or rent the movie, I'll just wait 'til it's on a cable channel, then watch it when I get tired of watching the grass grow. From what you say, I already know the problems and have a pretty good idea about the solutions, so without an explanation of how and why, I would be wasting valuable time being told what I already know.

I would add my personal desire that as well as charter schools, I would like to see more vouchers for the equally superior parochial schools. The vouchers are for the school, not the religion, so parochial schools should have an equal shot at educating the children the public schools cannot. Full disclosure: I incorporated and was actively involved in the formation of three Lutheran schools in the 80s in my local area. So I do have a dog in this hunt. BUT, we went out of our way to keep catechism classes at the church, and secular education in the school. I'm not out to make good Lutherans (or good Catholics), I just want to see good, educated Americans. That isn't happening in most public schools.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, You're welcome. I had a good deal of hope for this, given that many conservatives gave it the thumbs up. But what I found was truly weak. He avoids ALL of the really important questions that would have been useful, he doesn't see the obvious staring right at him, and he works so hard to sell his message that he forget to put much substance into the message.

It's certainly great that even a liberal would see problems with unions, but I wish he'd actually dug into the real problems, instead of trying to lay this off on a few bad teachers. He notes that ALL of our kids (even the smartest) fair poorly, but then he accepts the idea that only a small number of bad apples are what are keeping us down -- when logic tells us this is impossible.

What he should have looked at is how unions keep even good teachers from teaching, not how they protect the handful of bad ones.

Moreover, it was so manipulative that it truly turned me off. In a good documentary, the emotion comes naturally from the information being presented. Here, he tried to force by doing things like telling you how one kid's father died from drug overdose and watching the kids cry at various points. It felt exploitive to me.

I too support charter schools, I think there is a huge case to be made for them, but he doesn't make the case because he doesn't treat the argument fairly.

ArmChairGeneral said...

<-- will be waiting for dvd

AndrewPrice said...

ACG, Yeah, don't pay for this one.

CrispyRice said...

Oh, interesting choice, but I need to run. I'll come post a comment later.

I'll just say that I found this movie made me angry and sad and I took it as quite a scathing critique of the current system. I wouldn't call it a turkey for conservatives at all.

But I'll get back to you on that! :D

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, No rush! I look forward to seeing your take. :-)

T_Rav said...

Andrew, I knew I should've smelled a rat when I heard people in the media talking about "Waiting" and not denouncing it outright. Silly me for thinking they were finally facing the problem.

As the offspring of a highly devoted and capable public-school teacher, I have to say that the issue of reforming education is far more complicated than anyone wants to believe it is. What's happening in Wisconsin with the unions will help; so will vouchers, smaller class sizes, etc. But these only correct symptoms. There are a lot of core issues with the educational system that need to be addressed; I certainly don't have a program to correct it, but there needs to be more work done on it. The tendency of officials to keep throwing money at our schools and coming up with meaningless programs and standardized tests needs to end.

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

Bad teachers? Hmm. I think that could also be a strawman. There is a problem with that. In the military, they use ordinary people as trainers. In the military, the training is excellent and with effective results.

To become a public teacher, a BA or BS degree is required. Certain amount of hours as a teacher's assistant. A teaching certificate. Classes in Education. A BS degree in Education is ideal. This is just for grade school.

Do you start to see some of the problem with getting teachers? A person has to have approximatly 6 years in shool and time working in the education field before they can be considered for just a substitute job. That usually takes about a year to two years.

Basically, the person has to be poor for at least six years. But once the person has a job things get better, right?

Not exactly. The person has to stay at a base salary until tenure. Which usually happens at four years. Usually it is the tenured peers who vote you in for tenure or not. It isn't automatic. If the peers don't like the teacher, or just don't want to give tenure this year (Usually an election year)... you get the idea.

So, now the teacher is at ten years minimum, more if there is a glut on the market of brand new teachers, being poor or having a salary that hardly pays the rent let alone the education bills. By this time, the teacher is feeling pretty much used and abused. And the better ones, can't wait for an opening so go into corporate or a government job that is easier.

Now, things get interesting. The teacher has a job. Usually it is in one of the poorer performing schools in any one district.

If the teacher is too good or too effective he/she might not get tenure because of other teachers. Peers if you will. The effect stifles the bright new spunky teacher from being any good. Also, if the teacher goes for a higher degree too early, tenure might not be granted and usually isn't.

So, for four years, the teacher is stuck in a bad school getting the lowest pay. This doesn't even address the problems a teacher faces with giving a student a bad grade for poor work. The teacher has to justify it. Sometimes to lawyers. Teacher union lawyers? They are usually too busy working for higher ups cleaning up much bigger problems than a simple grade.

Now, after tenure is granted, the teacher can excell. Why should the teacher bother? There is no more money in it for the teacher. The teacher can only get more money with a higher degree. The teacher now can't be fired unless the teacher does something against a student, like having an affair with a student or beating the crap out of a mouthy one.

By this time, the teacher not only feels abused, but is out for vengeance and more money and benefits. The teacher has spent most of a young adult life working at a job which doesn't pay off the education bills incurred and has to pay for anything extra in the classroom. It usually is in a bad district. Any creativity, interest or dedication has been ground out.

By the way, this was true when my mother found out she couldn't be hired in California as a public school teacher. She had too much education. A master's with only a few more classes needed to get a PHD. She would have been too expensive.

This was over forty years ago in California. I don't think much has changed. I also can see why the teachers who have tenure or about to get tenure would object to political challenges to their position or money. They have spent most of their years reaching for the golden ring of tenure and forced raises only to have it taken away from them.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, That's very true. I think there are a lot of problems with our schools system and there is no single magic fix. For example, I think you have problems with (1) not enough time spent in school, (2) low expectations, (3) uninvolved parents/nasty defensive parents, (4) bad teachers, (5) lack of diversity (particularly males), (6) too many trendy ideas, (7) too much dumped on schools, (8) lack of useful qualifications for teachers, (9) too much money wasted on administrators, etc. etc. I could go on a very long time.

I recall when this came out that a lot of conservatives were jumping up and down saying "FINALLY!!" But I think they were far too optimistic. I think a lot of conservatives came into this knowing many of the problems and when Waiting hints at those, they filled in the details and jumped up and down happily. But he never really agrees with conservatives at any point.

For example, he makes it sound like he believes that unions are bad guys, BUT as he goes on, he never really levels any charge against them except that a few "lemons" can't be fired. He never gets into how they stop every serious reform or how they keep talented people out of the profession.

And that's the problem here, he paints a very vague picture that lets you think he's confirming what you already believe. Thus, both conservatives and liberals CAN feel like he's agreeing with them. But how is that possible unless he's just being vague?

In the end, when you look at what he really says, what all he does is "confirm" that liberalism has been held back by a few evil people.

T_Rav said...

Joel, fortunately it's not as bad as that in every state. In Missouri, for instance, we have "alternate certification," which is basically someone well-educated and qualified in their field taking a test and being cleared to teach without having to get the travesty that is an education degree. This wasn't the case until recently, when the shortage of math and science teachers in particular became crippling.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, You've raise some good points, though I don't entirely agree.

Let's start with this. As I note in response to T-Rav (and as he says), there are a lot more problems than just bad teachers. But bad teachers are definitely a serious problem. And that starts with the qualifications issue.

For example, it makes NO sense that someone with an education degree but no math background should be allowed to teach math, but a mathematician cannot. How sane is that? Do you know that I am not qualified to teach a legal class to high school kids, even though I have an advanced degree that would let me be a professor, I've practiced for many years in various aspects of the profession, and I've taught legal writing. Yet, a gym teacher with an education degree is considered qualified. How does that make sense?

(continued)

AndrewPrice said...

(continued)
I also do agree with your point that teaching is underpaid. But I mean that in the sense that if the profession paid more and was open to better people, we could attract better people. I don't think dumping more money on the current system is a good idea. Right now, the profession has a list of requirements (the education degree) that keep out the very people that need to be attracted. So until that is dropped entirely, we would just be throwing good money after bad.

I have no problem at all with apprenticeships, I think that's vital to training and making sure that the people you get have the ability.

Beyond that though, the real key to fixing education (and I keep meaning to outline this in a post) is competition and realigning consumers (parents) with producers (schools). Right now, schools are responsive to no one or to state legislatures or unions, but not taxpayers. Until that happens, their incentives will never be properly aligned.

Also, to get true competition, we need the government to back off with the requirements. They should provide basic requirements that left parents monitor success, but they need to stop micro managing. I'll see about writing a post on this.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, That's something new and it varies from state to state. In big union states, it doesn't exist. In other states, it exists but often has impossible requirements. One person I know was looking into this and found out it's one for a two year period in their state and they need to pursue a particular education degree within that time -- which isn't possible if you're working.

So while that's a step in the right direction, it's not very effective yet. But that is a critical step.

Joel Farnham said...

T_Rav,

Alternative certificates are okay, but this has been going on for over forty years.

These ultra-requirements are bad. It is all very well to have those degrees and abilities, more power to them. Still a home-schooled child can out-perform a public schooled student. It shouldn't take a degree to teach math for a grade school instructor.

Not giving raises to out-performing teachers, and only giving raises to teachers who have an extra-degree is ridiculous. Also requiring school districts to give raises because the teacher has an advanced degree is also ridiculous.

Each and every additional certificate to getting better teachers forces the good ones to turn away. To go for a job with easier requirements.

Yes, I think teachers should have some training. Something more like three months. Just the basics. Something the military does regularly with great results.

Requirement of an actual degree for grade schools? I am talking about 1st through 6th grades. Why?

I can understand why a math teacher in High School would need a math degree. One who specifically is teaching math. Algebra or higher. In high school. In grade school? Not when a home-schooled child can out-perform a public schooled student.

Tenure is bad. It allows a teacher to decide to coast. I asked my mom about tenure. It seems it used to be, public school teachers were appointed by elected officials. Tenure was to correct that. Another bandaid that has unintended consequences.

The system now is designed to create bad teachers. I personally don't think they can be rejuvinated. It has been too long and it is too convoluted.

I think that it should be junked for a voucher system and given over to private shools to operate.

T_Rav said...

Andrew, it does vary a great deal; if I remember right, in my state you have to either re-take the certification test after so many years or get some kind of education degree in that time. I know the requirements next door in Arkansas are far more stringent, and they probably would be for us too if we weren't so in need of teachers.

I would agree with most or all of the problems you point out, especially the nasty parents. I've known way too many of them, and it should be pointed out that if teachers often don't let the parents know what's going on in school (and many don't), that's largely because the parents don't seem interested in it in the first place.

While I'm on the subject, I would like to add that we shouldn't knock public schools too hard. As a system, it is fundamentally, even criminally flawed; from personal experience, however, there are many individual public schools which are quite good. Take the one I graduated from. Although it has its share of problems, it benefits from being in a rural area with a minimal population. My high school had roughly 100 people or so at any given time (I graduated first in a class of 28), so the principal could name any kid he might see in the hall. Also, there's minimal administration, and most of them are drawn from the community, so they have more invested in how the school performs. The same goes for the teachers: Despite high turnover, we've maintained a core of teachers who are also from the area, went to school together, and have the seniority to make sure things run smoothly. Even with such a small school, I feel I had an ideal public-school experience, and it was horrifying to take that and compare it with what goes on in the inner cities. I simply could not imagine only 12 of 500 students making it to the senior year. It just doesn't happen.

Okay, I'm gonna have to pause to collect my thoughts.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, A couple points.

First, I agree that it doesn't take a math degree to teach at the K-6 level. But once you get into specialty math, i.e. more than basic math, there's no reason that someone with a math degree should be considered less qualified than someone with an education degree.

Secondly, tenure was originally created at the college level to prevent administrators from tossing out professors with unpopular opinions. It's now been turned into a "union card." I think tenure should be abolished, just like all union-like protections should be abolished. Employees need to be responsible to their managers, and there are enough laws in place to stop someone from firing you because you're black or female or handicapped. We don't need an added layer of protection that says "you can't fire someone because they are in a union." Unions destroy businesses.

I think private schools and vouchers are a great alternative that may eventually lift us out of this problem. I would go one step further. I would quasi-privatize schools. Let principles act as owners on behalf of the state, with their jobs depending on getting results. In other words, treat them like a university president, and let parents go to whatever school they want in the city. (Also give them the power they need to manage their employees.)

I think you would see a lot of positive changes almost overnight.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, On the parents, I would offer the following points.

1. Too many parents are absentee-parents and have abdicated their role to the schools. Thus, blaming teachers for failure is a defense mechanism.

2. Too many parents are too litigious or too willing to assume the teacher is wrong and their kid was cheated.

3. Check out Hard Times, it's a real eye opener. Seriously. The parents shown in that (or not shown as the case may be) are the kinds of parents average, middle class parents assume don't really exist -- people who don't give a damn about their kids. And we're talking close to 90% of the parents of the kids in that school. (fyi, 12 out of 500 does happen -- spend time in DC or Baltimore).

In terms of knocking public schools, I agree. I had a mixed experience in public schools. Many of my teachers were certified idiots who didn't care about anything except a pay check. I also ran into massive problems with counselors who didn't like me trying to do more than the system expected. BUT, I also had great teachers, people I remember vividly today, whose lessons I can still repeat. So while I despise some of the people I dealt with, I also have nothing but respect for some of the others.

Also, we moved a good deal when I was young, so I can tell you that education in different states is incredible varied. Florida public schools should be burned to the ground. Tennessee teaches 8th graders what I learned in 6th grade in Colorado, and New York kids were 2 years ahead in math and science on Colorado.

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

Teachers aren't underpaid. For the required product, a 6th grader who can read and write English, do basic math, and understand some of the history of The United States. They are vastly overpaid.

It is the requirements that kill schools. Having children required to go to school for twelve years. Why? Right now, every kid is required to go to school for a full twelve years. Few stay. Most people don't need that much education to work a job. Most of the kids I know now-a-days don't have near as much high school education that I had. I had much less than my parents.

My mother told me that it used to be, people who were going onto college would finish high school. Others would go to trade schools. Like mechanics and such.

I understand about your example. And you are absolutly right.

And tenure, it was explained to me that it was a political thing.

I do like your ideas, but I still fear them because they start with a flawed system which has rewarded the wrong things for so long that I don't think it can be saved.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Education is more important today than ever. More and more these days, jobs require you to have the kinds of skills that require significant education -- engineering, doctors, law, programming, finance, etc. The days that most of the population can get a job in a factory with a limited education and still support their families as middle class Americans are gone. If you aren't educated, then you will be in the bottom rung.

In terms of being "underpaid," as I say, I mean that in terms of "if we want to attract the best." For the current system, no they aren't. But I think we should extend the school year significantly, demand higher performance, and open the field up to competition, so that we can attract the best people.

Every other professional field pays people according to the demand for their skills and the better they are, the more they earn. But teaching doesn't. Until that changes, teaching will continue to draw the mediocre and suppress the best teachers. The only way to change that is to (1) end the union rules that keep people out and (2) allow bidding for better teachers.

T_Rav said...

Andrew, I don't doubt the figures; that's just something that, given my experience, it's impossible to wrap my head around.

I think some kind of privatization is a good idea, but not in the sense of being run exactly like a business--that is, strictly for profit. That's not really what a school is for.

Among other things, I would propose that: 1) A lot of the state and especially federal regulations and administration be cut out. Much of my opposition to big government came from seeing boards of education lay down sweeping rules that could not possibly apply to several hundred different school districts their members had little or no knowledge of, and this was at the state level. Control of education needs to be put back in the hands of the local community. This would also force teachers and parents to actually give a rip about the state of the schools, and give locals more of a say over what's being taught.

2) Get rid of all the standardized tests. Whatever value these might have, which in my opinion isn't much, high schoolers spend too much of the school year preparing for them. Use it for actually learning stuff.

3)...okay, two's all I've got for now. But those are big things.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, I don't have a problem with having them "run like a business," because remember that business is not the stereotype many people believe. For example, this phrase does not imply lowered quality in an effort to produce cheap product. Business models very, and while some rely on cheap products, others rely on high quality or satisfying niche markets.

That's actually ideal for schools because it means parents will have lots of options to choose from -- art schools, science schools, college prep, trade schools, etc.

If we privatize schools, what the schools will need to do is to meet the market demand, which will mean satisfying the demands of parents. Compare that to right now, where they simply apply budgets and try to satisfy legal requirements imposed on them by state and federal regulators.

In terms of standardized tests, I don't see any other way to evaluate student progress and thereby the quality of schools. In fact, if we hadn't imposed standardized testing requirements, people wouldn't know just how bad their schools really are. Before the No Child Left Behind standards, most people fell for the idea that "schools in general stink, but our school is good." After the test results came in, they began to realize that their own schools were bad too.

So I would keep those as a way to compare the ability of schools to meet certain basic requirements -- math, ability to read and write. Beyond that, I would say that schools should be able to meet the demands of the market, i.e. parents, and that so long as parents can vote with their feet by changing schools, parental pressure will do the rest. Right now, parental pressure just leads to frustration because schools don't have to listen and couldn't do much even if they did. But in a privatized world, parental pressure, will force schools to improve or fail.

ScottDS said...

(I just got home and haven't read every comment. Apologies for any repetition.)

I don't really have a dog in this fight but my dad's a teacher. He's in his mid-50s and it was his mid-life career change after spending his life in the private sector since college. He's not in any union and studied for his teaching certification by night while subbing during the day.

He hates it. I know... it's his bed and now he has to sleep in it. He's been doing it for close to a decade now and it seems the students get worse every year. After teaching history and math, he currently teaches 6th grade science (though I admit he has no formal background in the field). Most of the students come from bad neighborhoods and many from broken homes and there's also a complete lack of respect. He's had students who don't even know basic English. He knows he can transfer but I guess it's a somewhat complicated process - I don't know if he's looked into private or parochial schools.

One thing that bugs him is when people say, "Teachers have it easy! They only work nine months out of the year!" For some, that might be true but even when my dad has off, he's usually knee-deep in grading papers, preparing lesson plans, attending workshops, etc. And I know he's had his issues with the school bureaucrats.

As some of my fellow Commentaramans have said, it's a complicated issue involving a variety of factors. I don't know enough about the subject but I just had to get all this off my chest. I've seen my dad work too hard to get lumped in with the bastards. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. T_Rav, when I say privatize, I don't mean "make them all fee paying." I still think public funding is entirely appropriate. What I would suggest would be that funding follows the students. I would also be willing to consider allowing very-in-demand schools to add a small surcharge -- maybe something that says if the get twice as many applications as spots, then they could charge up to $500 a semester or something like that. BUT definitely don't mean making all schools tuition charging.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Let me put it this way.

IF... if we opened up schools so that they had to compete for students and teachers, then people like your dad, who is teaching in an undesirable school would need to be paid more to teach there. But in the current system, he gets paid the same thing as the teacher at the cushy middle class school.

What I'm getting at, is that while your father may not have it easy, a large number of other teachers do. And because teachers unions try to sell the idea that teachers are like a commodity with no differences, he will get lumped in with the rest and the particular hardships he faces will be ignored.

In other words, while his complaints are valid, he's part of a herd whose complaints are not valid. And if they stopped acting like a herd, then people like your father would probably find their working conditions improved dramatically and his complaints taken much more seriously. But the unions want them to remain a herd.

And when you look at people who only work 1400 hours a year (compared to well above 2000 in other professions), and yet they earn at or above the median wage, people don't react kindly to teachers whining about being paid unfairly or not liking their jobs.

And let me address this idea of homework. This is a classic example of how oblivious teachers are. When a teacher says, "but I have to grade homework at home..." they complete miss the fact that so do the rest of us. Every single professional I've ever met works late and/or takes work home with them. Thus, the "but I have to grade homework" really only shows how ignorant teachers are about how little they work compared to everyone else.

(continued)

AndrewPrice said...

(continued)
Also, teachers have no stress. If a doctor screws up, someone dies. An accountant kills a company or goes to jail. An ad exec loses a key account and kills his firm. Lawyers blow it and companies die or people go to jail. If a teacher screws up, it takes years to figure that out, and it can be corrected.

Plus, teachers can't be fired. Not only can everyone else be fired, they can be fired because the boss wants to fire them -- no reason needs to be giving. "You're our top performer, but I don't like you.... you're gone."

So not only do other professions work much longer, they worker harder and they work under much greater stress. So when teacher come along and say, "we aren't paid fairly," it's really hard not to get angry about that.


In any event, when it comes to reform, I think the problem with current reform is that they're putting bandaids on a corpse. The current system will not change because it has no incentive to change. Outsiders can't replace teachers and teachers can't leave the system. The budget process will never change. Parents can get upset, but their voices will not be heard because the bills are paid by legislatures. Everything in the system is designed to remain static.

Liberals have made this worse with their social engineering. By telling teachers they can't distinguish between smart and dumb kids and they can't discipline bad kids, what they've done is convert teachers into babysitter of the worst kids or junior wardens.

All of that needs to be ripped out of the system and the system needs to be opened to competition (for students and teachers) for real change to happen. Otherwise, we're just shifting around deck chairs.

Ed said...

All of this discussion aside, which is quite interesting, thanks for the review. I figured something was up when I heard an Al Gore flunky made a film that criticized unions.

Fishing in New York City? Really?

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ed.

Yeah, seriously. It was pretty fascinating. Apparently, fishing is a big thing in New York City and people are doing it everywhere. They claim the rivers are clean enough now to actually eat the fish, though one guy was fishing by a sewage plant. Blech!

ScottDS said...

Thanks for the reply.

Speaking of documentaries, I once watched a documentary about a font.

Helvetica

It was alright but not as adrenaline-pumping as I thought it would be! ;-)

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome Scott.

Trust me, I have a LOT of sympathy for your father, but he's in a profession that is not going to draw a lot of sympathy because of choices made by the unions. So long as they try to pretend that teachers are a commodity (i.e. interchangeable) nothing is going to change.


I missed that documentary... though I don't know if I really missed it if you know what I mean! ;-)

Seriously though, there are some great documentaries out there.

T_Rav said...

Andrew, I didn't mean privatize in that way. I have no doubt it would result in a much better use of resources and better accountability in general, and would certainly be superior to the existing system. In this case, I gave "business" a negative connotation in the sense that it might, for that reason, be less tethered to the community. My maxim for education is, "Localize, localize, localize," and if a business-model school system meant transporting students away from the community and local control, I think that would cause some problems. Maybe we're both making the same point but are just on different wavelengths. I think I know what you're getting at.

As far as standardized tests go, I understand the theory behind them but they've gotten terribly out of control. For example, we took several days off from regular classes in the fall to study for the ACT, sometimes as long as a week or so. Then in the spring, we take two weeks or more to do state assessment tests. Beyond that, there's shorter tests held periodically for a variety of purposes. While I'd be willing to agree to some kind of standardized testing, it needs to be heavily curtailed.

And don't get me started on No Child Left Behind. I have never met a teacher, unionized or not, who didn't utterly loathe that legislation.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, We never got time off for tests. When we hit 7th grade we took the Iowa Basic Achievement Test, and I think that's all we had to take. Anyone going to college also had to take the SAT and/or the ACT. But as a class, we never took anything else.

The problem with getting rid of standardized tests is how do you know what the kids have learned? I'm talking about a very basic test -- math, reading, writing. And maybe the thing to do is to do it like a random drug test -- on some day known only to state regulators, they show up with the test and everyone takes it? Just a thought. That should prevent people from teaching to the test. But that's probably a topic for a longer debate.


We are probably talking about the same thing business-wise. I mean that each school would become it's own business-like entity, not that they would all be sold to some national outfit. They would basically all be independent, but state owned. Then parents could send their kids anywhere in town. That way the schools would compete to attract local students, i.e. meaning they need to satisfy local parents. But the schools wouldn't be moved, students wouldn't be shipped out of state or out of town, and these wouldn't become owned by large companies. You could even avoid the "business" word entirely if you wanted and just say that each school is now it's own "state-owned independent academy."

I've heard nothing good about NCLB. But I do like the idea of finally testing and figuring out what the problems really are. Until the testing began under that law, people really didn't know how bad kids were doing or how bad schools were doing.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thanks for the superb review, Andrew!

I was suspicious about this "documentary" when I discovered who did it, and that Bill Gates liked it.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the teacher's unions came out vehemently against it, even though, as you say, this wasn't an attack on the unions and basically only suggested that bad teachers should be easier to fire.
Apparently, the unions don't believe there is such a thing as bad teachers.

I am very surprised that any conservatives supported Waiting For Superman.
Recently I read that John Stossel and Dan Riehl at Big Hollywood thought this deserved an Oscar nod.
These are two folks I usually agree with so I'm left wondering WTH?
Did they watch this thing?

Anyways, too bad Guggenheim wimped out or is too stupid to think rationally. Then again, he did make Inconvenient "Truth" so I weasn't expecting an epiphany of truth on his part.

I pretty much agree with all the various ways everyone suggested we could make our education system better.

One fundamental thing I would change is to get rid of "Social Studies" and bring back History and a lot more of it.
Particularly American History.

Critical and independent thinking should also be stressed in all grades.

Also, get rid of this "competition is bad" idea, deep six all this "self esteem" garbage, and help kids learn about self confidence instead...with a stout dose of humble pie on the side.

Kids should be prepared for reality not la la land when they graduate from high school.
And yes, there is such a thing as stupid questions.
I know. I was a Navy instructor for a few years.

AndrewPrice said...

Thank Ben! And you're welcome.

On Stossel and Reihl, I suspect that either they didn't look too deeply at the movie, or they liked the fact that it does attack unions. Even though the attack is super shallow, it is at least a first that liberals would criticize the unions and suggest that they need to stop protecting bad teachers. In fact, that's a monumental shift for a liberal. So maybe they decided that 10% is better than nothing ever?

In any event, it's too bad this was the extent of the criticism by Guggenheim. He could have really achieve something if he'd tried to be open and honest about what he found.

On your ideas, I agree. I think the key is to yank all the politics out of education and focus on teaching facts, basic skills and the ability to reason. Leave the politics for college or beyond education.

And you're right about the stupid questions. I used to teach legal writing and I got some doozies.

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